How to Plan a Dia de los Muertos Celebration

Published April 29, 2010 | Updated August 19, 2015

Day of the Dead, or Dia de los Muertos, is an important celebration in Mexican culture. If you're interested in holding your own Dia de los Muertos celebration, use these tips to help you get ready.

Celebrate Dia de los Muertos:

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  • Learn the History

    The holiday is a fusion of indigenous rituals that have been practiced for thousands of years and the Catholic holidays of All Saints' Day and All Souls' Day. The Aztec, Maya, Mixtec, Olmec, P'urhepecha, Totonac, and Zapotec peoples held festivals dating back 2,500 to 3,000 years ago, dedicated to the goddess Mictecacihuatl, the "Lady of the Dead." In modern times, the festival takes place November 1st and 2nd and includes visiting cemeteries to communicate with the souls of the departed, building altars, and cooking the favorite foods of deceased friends and family members.

  • Prepare Traditional Recipes

    Food plays a large role in traditional celebrations. Sugar skulls are made by dissolving sugar in water and cooking until the mixture is reduced to a thick syrup. The syrup is then poured into skull-shaped molds, and the hardened candies are decorated with brightly colored sugar frosting, with the names of deceased friends and relatives inscribed on the foreheads. Pan de Muerto, or "bread of the dead," is an iconic food made especially for the holiday and is flavored with orange peel and anise. It is usually made in simple round bakeware; however, some bakeries make them more decorative, molding the bread into animal or human forms or topping a round loaf with sugar to look like bones.

  • Create an Altar

    Many people create altars for the cemetery or to decorate for the holiday. When making an altar, or ofrenda, for the deceased, be sure to decorate it with bright candles and flowers. Purple candles represent pain, pink represents celebration, and white represents hope. Yellow and orange marigolds are frequently used on altars because of their bright colors and strong aromas. Sugar skulls and Pan de Muerto are often left at altars as well, and extras are made for the family to enjoy. All items left at the altars, however, should reflect what the deceased enjoyed during life. Include their favorite foods and flowers when you build an altar for your own deceased relatives.

  • Make Costumes

    Many people commemorate the holiday by dressing in traditional costumes. Skulls are a symbol of the holiday, and calacas, or skull masks, are worn. You can also use a face paint to transform your own face into a skull. The skull designs are often adorned with other symbols of the holiday, such as marigolds. Women often wear a crown of marigolds on their heads, and skeleton bride-and-groom costumes are popular for the holiday.